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The Fifth Sunday of Lent
during the coronavirus pandemic
March 29, 2020

Click here to watch the video of the livestream Mass


Good morning, my friends.  This is the point where the reader always stands to welcome people to the Cathedral and to remind them to silence their cell phones.  We can skip that this morning for obvious reasons, but I would like to say as we begin that I really long to be able to look at you directly this morning and say to you, as I give you the consecrated host, ‘the Body of Christ.’  But I can still say that to you and mean it because , even though you are temporarily deprived of receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, you -  we - are the Body of Christ, and no matter how physically separated we may be at this time, we are together in that Body, one in Christ, one with each other!


     One of the lesser-known works of the great American playwright, Eugene O'Neill, is a play called Lazarus Laughed.  It tells the story of the good friend of Jesus who briefly tasted death and saw it for what it was. Ever after, Lazarus greets everyone he meets with words that become something of a refrain throughout the play, these words:

             Laugh with me!/ Death is dead!/ Fear is no more!
            There is only life!/ There is only laughter!

     The stage directions that follow indicate that (and here I quote) Lazarus "begins to laugh, softly at first, then full-throated - a laugh so full of joy in living, so devoid of all fear, that it is infectious with love."

     I like the image of the laughing Lazarus. I like it especially at this scary time when we seem to have little or nothing to laugh about. But maybe it will be helpful to remember that the laughter of Lazarus was preceded by tears. His own, I would think - when he knew he was irreversibly in the grip of death - and certainly the tears of Martha and Mary, his loving sisters who doted on him, and who were devastated by his untimely death. And then there were the tears of Jesus. In what is surely the shortest but also one of the most revealing sentences in all the gospels, we are simply told that "Jesus wept."

     Laughter and tears. Tears and laughter. They are like waves that constantly wash up onto the shores of life. And they are never very far apart, are they?  Certainly not in today's readings, and certainly not in life as we know it, although in these days of the Coronavirus, there are definitely more tears than laughter. But the truth is that tears and laughter are as constant and as predictable as death and life. They give life and death a voice.

     My ministry as a priest over many years has brought me close to the tears and laughter of a lot of people. To tell you the truth, it's an awesome thing, a humbling thing, and sometimes a terrifying thing to be that close to the agony and the ecstasy of another human being. It’s something I never take  lightly.

     Till the day I die, I will remember keeping vigil – many years ago - with a young wife and mother at the bedside of her dying husband. He was way too young to be dying, but Agent Orange from the Vietnam War and the resultant leukemia were having their way. We watched life slowly but steadily drain from him as, through our tears, we prayed the Church's prayers for the dying. He died one morning just after sunrise and before sunset that same day, his wife gave birth to their second child, a beautiful baby girl. Tears and laughter can come very close together in this mysterious life of ours, but I never saw them come any closer than that. I found myself standing in silent wonder before the mystery of a God for whom life and death are intricately woven together and sometimes even spoken in the same breath.

     But we must not be too literal about life and death. Death has more than one meaning and so does life. The scriptures tell us that the story of the raising of Lazarus is more than a great miracle story that showed beyond any doubt that Jesus had power over death. It certainly did that, but it did even more because in John's Gospel the miracles of Jesus are more than wonders: they are signs, signs of something far deeper than physical. They are spiritual signs, signs of faith. Think of them as sacraments that point beyond themselves. In last Sunday's Gospel when Jesus gave sight to the man born blind, his eyes began to see people and trees and colors, yes, but he gained other eyes, too. He gained the eyes of faith that allowed him to see Jesus as Lord. "I do believe, Lord," he said, as he fell down in worship. And it was the same in the story of the Samaritan woman. The water from Jacob's Well not only quenched her thirst, it led her to an encounter with Jesus, the living water.

     So what is the deeper level of the story of Lazarus?  I see it as a story, not just about the raising of the brother of Martha and Mary but the raising of every Christian believer, including you and me. Lazarus represents Christians on their way to faith and he also represents Christians struggling to believe and sometimes finding it hard to believe.

     Each one of us should be able to identify with Lazarus. Like him, we are the friends of Jesus, and we are also the ones for whom Jesus weeps, and the ones to whom he speaks those commanding words, "Lazarus, come forth!"  That’s because there is something dead in each of us waiting to be brought back to life; there’s something asleep in each of us, longing to be awakened. The Lazarus story is our story, then - the story of every believer and of everyone striving to believe. And it’s the story of those in our community who are preparing for Baptism. They have heard the words of Jesus, "Lazarus, come forth," and they are shaking off their shrouds and winding sheets, eager to walk in freedom and in the light of day.

     My friends, we all have tears in our lives. That’s especially true during these days of the Corona virus, but it’s true every day because we all have hurts that won't go away: painful memories that haunt us, limitations we can't overcome, things that just don't make sense to us, things that bring us to tears. And we all have death to deal with, too: the death of a loved one, or our own death, or maybe our fear of death. And at this particular moment we are painfully aware of the deaths of thousands around the world – many right here in our own area – because of the terrible pandemic.

     But death is not the whole story. There is Lazarus and his story which we need to hear. We really do. With Lazarus, we need to hear Jesus say, "Come forth!", and then we need to take our first uncertain steps into the light of day. And, you know, that takes courage because we can actually be comfortable in our graves. We can get used to drowning in our tears.

     But my friends, as much as tears are a part of our lives, we are still meant to laugh. Along with Lazarus, we are meant to leave our tombs and to laugh.  To laugh because, in the end, there really is only life. And God’s enduring love!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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